Mods And Skinheads

Brighton aggro in New Society, 3 September, 1981.

Mods, boneheads and normals on the front

Could this be the start of something big? A flurry of parkas, up the steps leading from Brighton beach to the promenade, turns all those heads getting hot in the queue for the Palace Pier. At the rear of this charge of the mods, a stockbroker’s clerk, Andy, clomps the last few steps in his brow suede Cuban heels. Storm in a teacup, he says, watching about 30 fellow members of the Essex Thunderbirds running nowhere in particular.

It is Sunday dinner time. Mods are still arriving, by scooter and car, coach and train. Andy left Hornchurch on his Lambretta GP200 at six o’clock last night, got into Brighton at eleven and made camp near a golf club. Sitting outside a cafe on the front, he squints into the sun and says, languid, that they were stopped and searched twice en route.

Andy is 17. Though he has been a mod for three years, it’s only since he started working that he’s been able to go “completely mod.” Before that he sometimes had to wear straight clothes.

He’s wearing a suede-fronted cardigan above permanent crease trousers. His Cuban heel boots are killing him, he says, walking towards the fairground. Being a mod is an expensive hobby. “We used to go to this club in Southend, Scamps, on a Saturday night. It’s 25 miles, which is two quid in petrol. Then it’s two quid to get in. It stays open till two, so you’re on £14 a week supplementary, you done it. And people do. Live for the weekend.”

Another member of the Thunderbirds starts walking alongside, plying Andy with stories of last night’s fights. Andy listens stoically. “The whole thing sickens me actually,” he says, after his friend has disappeared. “Some people can’t enjoy themselves without having a row. I mean, I will defend myself. I will defend my scooter. I think it’s ridiculous if the police are going to nick you for that. Mine’s left down there now. Cost me £300 and it could be kicked to pieces. Get no insurance for that.”

Tonight the Thunderbirds will conceal their scooters in a copse near the marina. “To be on the safe side,” he says, walking past the Penny Wonderland amusement arcade, nodding to all the familiar faces. There’s been rumours of hordes of East End skinheads – mods call them “boneheads” – coming down here, but so far Andy’s only seen ten.

About 80 scooters are parked opposite the Volks miniature railway station, and a few hundred mods are sunning themselves on the grassy slope above the tarmac. Andy sits down next to another Hornchurch mod, Eric, who is a trainee chef for Hambro’s Bank. “I hate going to work,” he says. “But you go to work. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do this.” Eric’s scooter, which he’s buying on HP, will cost him £1,000 all told. He takes home £45 a week.

Eric is wearing a West Ham scarf, but he says that it’s just to keep warm on his scooter. Like Andy, he isn’t interested in football. “Better things to do on a Saturday. Saturday mornings we go looking for clothes in the original shops in the East End that are all closing down, in the West End too, and in markets like Roman Road,” he says, raising a hand to a short boy called Kev whose tape recorder is playing soul at full volume.

Kev is a DJ. He does rhythm and soul nights every Tuesday and Wednesday at the Sebright Arms in Hackney. He’s got 500 soul singles, he says, and hundreds of LPs. Daytimes, he too works as a stockbroker’s clerk. If he can find a hotel room he’s going to organise a party for tonight, he says.

Although he owns a scooter, Kev says he is banned from driving for a year. He was breathalysed? “Nah. Forged number plates, no plates, no tax, no insurance, bird on the back.”

He nods his head to the first chords of the next soul single on the tape. A lot of Kev’s record collection, which he’s built up in just two years, comes from a shop called Final Solution, just off Oxford Street. Strange name for a record shop? Mods, Andy says, don’t much go for politics, but there are a few fascists here and there: a scooter club called the Viceroys which is all British Movement, a mod fanzine called Patriot, that kind of thing. Mod colours always have been red, white and blue.

At about 6.30pm the Thunderbirds start picking themselves off up the grass. Some go and get changed before walking into town, to the Royal Oak, one of the few pubs that doesn’t have men standing outside denying entrance to mods and skins this bank holiday.

By 9pm the Royal Oak was shut, lights off and doors closed. Skinheads have been in one bar, mods in another. Three thunderflashes were let off. Police cleared out all the mods, who retaliated with stones and bottles as they were moved down towards the promenade, and finally penned in on the open ground before the Volks railway station, which was petrol bombed.

The phone started ringing in the booth by the station, just as it was being smashed up. Someone picked up the phone, explained what was happening, and carried on wrecking the booth.

At 2.30am, police were still rounding up all the mods. One group of 60 or so, who’d been fighting on the front with a small contingent of rockers, were the last to be taken down to the pen by the beach. “It’s called police harassment,” whispered a boy whose tonic suit wasn’t warm enough now the night had turned cold. I walked down towards the Palace Pier behind a mod couple, a sleeping bag draped round the boy, a blanket round the girl. There had been 15 arrests. At 6am all the scooters were escorted out of town.

Darrin, walking down from the station next morning at 11 o’clock, wants to know what happened. He’s down from Romford for the day. He wears the inverted Y peace symbol on his American flying jacket. He got interested in CND, after looking round a bookshop in Exeter while on holiday. Darrin, 16, has been looking for a job since he left school in July.

On the train Darrin met Mark, another 16 year old claimant. Mark has been a mod three years now.

“Great life,” he says, this fat boy in the crumpled green tonic jacket, swaggering down the promenade.

“We didn’t come for no trouble,” explains Steve, who was on the same train. “Just to have a good time, that’s all.”

Gas board workmen are cleaning up the wreckage round the Volks station. There are just three scooters parked opposite. One of them is owned by Mart, who says he drove halfway to London and back last night. His eyes are black through lack of sleep. Mart also left school this summer, but he has a job to go to next week, as an electrician.

“Last night,” he says, “they {the police} took all our cardigans and parkas, nicked our shoes, chucked all the crash helmets in the road. They was watching us all night. At four o’clock they started letting people put their shoes on, ‘cos their toes were falling off.”

Darrin hands out some cheese sandwiches his mother made for him that morning. Six skinheads stand talking to police by the railings beyond the station. “Hello,” shouts a mod girl called Maria. “I’m a skinhead. Can I crawl up your arse?”

Maria, a 19 year old dental nurse, sits with her younger sister Rosemarie. “I never wanted this to happen,” says Maria, pointing at the burned-out station. “I thought that was disgusting.” Her sister, and their two friends, Angie, who works at Chelsea Girl boutique, and Caroline, who’s studying at catering college, all agree. These four girls, all members of the Essex Thunderbirds, managed to find a B&B late last night.

“My mum knows I’m down here,” says Caroline, who’s wearing a green tweed two-piece she got from a charity shop. “She was one of the original mods. Used to tell me what to do. Tactics.”

Rosemarie works in a jewellers in Oxford Street. She says that mods were quite respectable back in 1979, before you got all hangers-on and posers. A poser, she continues, is anyone who is a part-time mod. These four have different club memberships for every night of the week. “Good clubs they are. You don’t get no trouble there,” says Rosemarie.

“I’m just despondent about the whole life,” groans Maria, the leader of this pack, and everyone smiles. It’s a grey day, looks like rain. Police across the road are supping tea from plastic cups. “It’s not a holiday home. You’re supposed to be working,” yells Maria.

Rosemarie says she is a communist, while her sister is “rank NF.” Angie’s brother is a rocker. Home life can get complicated.

Because most of the boys in the Thunderbirds hid their scooters away, they avoided getting run out of Brighton. They arrive in ones and twos, sit down by the girls. Post mortems are going on all over the grassy slope, on which some 200 mods are sitting, by one o’clock. Eric, the trainee chef, sniffs in disgust at a headline in the Star: PETROL BOMB TERROR. “It was only a little vodka bottle,” he says.

Someone else has heard that the police get £10 an hour for working bank holidays. He advances his theory that they have a vested interest in bank holiday bundles.

At just gone 2 pm the police start moving everyone off the grass, up the steps onto the promenade. “You just want everyone up there, on the main street, chanting ‘We are the mods,’ so you can nick us all,” says Maria to one of the policemen.

“It’s not us, honestly,” he replies. “It’s those geezers in the flat hats. They tell us what to do. Everyone’ll be off rioting now, and it’s us who have to put up with the bottles and bricks. Everything was nice and cool. Everyone sitting down.” He walks away, exasperated.

The four girls get up. Maria pulls on her purple raincoat. All four pick up their cream overnight cases, start walking alongside the railway track, past the Astro Liner (“Take a trip to the future, 50p”) at the edge of the fair, and up the steps towards the promenade.

They are joned by Tom, a 14 yar old mod who has been in trouble with his headmaster for wearing eye-liner. Tom intends going into the army as an engineer. “Eight normals want a fight, down by the slide,” Tom whispers to the girls. “But they just want the big ones. Keep it quiet.” He rushes off. Rosemarie laughs.

A hundred yards further on two skinheads flexing their muscles before a group of 20 mods. The girls, led by Marie, break up the fight by dragging away skinheads. A police Transit screeches to a halt. Men burst out the back door, start chasing a dozen mods up Bedford Street. Of those who are caught, some get taken away in the Transit. Others just have to surrender the laces from their Hush Puppies.

“If there’d been a bunch of skinheads we’d of joined in fighting,” explains Rosemarie, matter-of-fact”. But when there’s just two boneheads you’ve got to break it up.”

The four girls turn off the main streets into the bus station. They’re going home early. It hasn’t been much of a weekend.

At Brighton station police have segregated the passengers for the 4.05 to Victoria. Normals at the front of the train. Mods in the back. At least it never rained.

Ian Walker


1 thought on “Mods And Skinheads

  1. Pingback: This week in UK history, 1981: uprisings and riots all over the country | past tense

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